With great sadness we have just learned of the sudden death of comrade Angel Val Mendizabal at the age of 81. The father of a remarkable family of revolutionaries, Angel was a proletarian class fighter all his life. From very early on in his life, in the dark years of the Franco dictatorship, he worked on the production line in the metal industry. These were years of bitter class struggle, in which the workers were denied even the most elementary rights to belong to a real union, strike or demonstrate.
The brutality of the dictatorship fell with special force on the workers of the Basque country. I remember a conversation I had with the late Pat Wall, before he became a Marxist parliamentarian at Westminster. He worked as a buyer and on one occasion this took him to Vitoria, in the Basque Country. He told me that in all his experience he never saw such bitterness and smouldering hostility as when he visited the factories of Vitoria in the early 1970s. "You could sense that it was going to explode." And it did.
The period after Franco's death (November 1975) was very stormy. The workers rose up against the regime. There were many strikes, general strikes, assassinations and street battles, culminating in the great strike in Vitoria in the spring of 1976. In an attempt to buy off Angel, the management promoted him to the position of foreman, but this manoeuvre was not successful. He accepted the job but remained an active trade unionist. He collected union dues in the factories, going from one machine to another. In 1976 he went out on strike with the rest of his class. One of his sons, Arturo Val del Olmo, of the UGT, was one of the leaders of that historic strike, which ended in the massacre of the 3rd of March.
The Vitoria strike was an impressive demonstration of the power of the working class under the most difficult conditions. The town was completely occupied by armed police. Because they lacked legal unions, the workers established representative commissions, which were soviets in all but name. I attended one of the meetings of the Victoria soviet, which was quite extraordinary. It was held in the church of St. Francis – it was normal in those days because the churches were about the only big buildings that were open to the workers. The church was packed, but there was absolute discipline: nobody interrupted the speakers, and the speeches were on a very high level. Women also participated - housewives expressing support for their men. I remember one said: "if my children have to eat only bread for six months, we will support this strike."
The decisive day was March 3rd, 1976. Groups of workers massed from the factories in the early hours of the morning and marched to the town centre. The police were everywhere, so the workers resorted to "guerrilla tactics". One minute, the street would be empty, but you could see groups of workers gathered on street corners. Then someone would whistle and they would all rush into the road, blocking it with their bodies. After some time the police sirens would be heard and the workers would dissolve into thin air. The uniformed thugs would arrive to find the enemy gone.
That day showed the true fighting spirit of the workers of Vitoria. But it ended in a massacre. In the evening, a large number of people gathered again in the church of St. Francis. There were several thousand men, women and children, and old people. The armed police surrounded the church and threw smoke bombs through the windows. Panic ensued. The people poured through the doors gasping for breath. Then the police opened fire with automatic weapons. Six people were killed and many others wounded.
This was a turning point because it frightened the ruling class into making concessions which led to what they call "the transition" - a botched affair that established a so-called "democracy" - complete with un-elected monarchy. None of the murderers and torturers of the old regime were ever punished. In effect, the workers were cheated of the victory they so richly deserved through the cowardice and treachery of their leaders, who compromised with the regime.
In the years that followed the revolutionary impetus was lost. Many left the movement, disgusted by the betrayals of the leaders, demoralised, or just worn out. That was the fate even of people who played a leading role in the fight against Franco. The following years were characterised by a mood of despair, scepticism, cynicism and apostasy. It was hard to fight against the current, but some did. And among them was Angle Val del Olmo and his faithful companion and comrade Txari.
If there is one thing that distinguishes a real proletarian from a superficial middle class element it is this: that the proletarian has the necessary staying-power, that inner strength that comes from class consciousness, that stubborn obstinacy (and there are no more obstinate people in the world than the Val del Olmo family!) that defies all the odds, that rises above all difficulties and continues to fight, come what may. Angel remained loyal to the movement. He was not affected by the general decline, but was always present – cheerful, optimistic, and always talkative. How Angel could talk! The ideas and thoughts came tumbling out of him like a torrent, expressing that tremendous enthusiasm and inner vitality that seemed never to be exhausted.
I remember very well how Angel and Txari would always be present at every meeting. They were absolutely incombustible in their dedication to the cause of the working class and socialism. Angel had a strong character – something he has passed on to his children. The most striking thing about him was his constant and unquenchable enthusiasm. This always made him appear much younger than his years. Some young people seem to become prematurely aged, but Angel was eternally youthful – he carried his youth in his heart. But his youthful sense of optimism did not come from the clouds. It was the product of his profound belief in the justness of the cause to which he had dedicated his life.
Angel was that very special kind of proletarian – a self-educated worker. His lively mind was restless and enquiring to the end. He did not read books – he devoured them. They were bread to him. On his bedside when he died was a copy of Bolshevism, the Road to Revolution. He was reading it for the second time. This enthusiasm for theory and the ideas of Marxism was undoubtedly a major factor that kept his batteries running, while many others dropped out, exhausted.
Angel's life, like that of all working class people, was not free from personal tragedy. His wife and inseparable companion, Txari, died ten years ago. An even harder blow was the tragic death of his youngest son, Mikel Val del Olmo, like himself a dedicated revolutionary and a leader of the Marxist tendency, El Militante in Bilbao. But nothing could destroy that great spirit or eradicate that eternal optimism but death itself.
Unlike his sons, Arturo, Eloy and Mikel, Angel was not a leader. His role was different. It was the role of so many good workers, who are content to support the movement quietly and anonymously. He is one of those countless nameless proletarians who have added their grain to the mountain. Out of innumerable small grains a mighty structure is erected, and that structure is destined to change the world.
Angel Val Mendizabal is no more, but his memory and life's work lives on in and through each of us. We can take some comfort that when the end finally came it was swift and painless. Angel did not have to endure years of confinement in a wheel chair. He retained all his faculties, and his mind was as alert as ever. Angel Val Mendizabal died as he had lived, a proletarian revolutionist. He kept his belief in socialism and the final victory of the working class to the very end.
We extend our condolences to Angel's family and in particular his sons, Arturo and Eloy and their families, his daughter Maribi and daughter-in-law Mabel.